I stumbled upon this in my news feed early this week. Needless to say, those are staggering numbers. We’re looking at 16, high-volume activities in a mere 60-seconds! So it brings up a few questions that I frequently ask myself especially on the topics of attention and focus:
- What does a long-term state of continuous-partial attention do to our brain and our ability to sustain focus?
- What role do synaptic connections play to help us focus and function just as efficiently in this new reality?
- In a 24/7, hyper-connected world, what specific measures can we take to minimize the damage of distractions and increase focus?
I’m no scientist or researcher but as a consumer of nearly 10 of the 16 mentioned channels in the illustration above, it makes me pause and wonder. I certainly don’t have the answers but I’d love to dialogue with you here.
Continuous Partial Attention (CPA)
I first heard this term in a keynote delivered by Dr. Bob Johansen. He is a veteran Futurist and Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future. He was one of our keynote speakers in a Cisco leadership event, a few years ago. In his keynote, he talked about CPA and how our already, 24/7, hyper-connected, world will soon be more connected than ever before.
But what exactly is CPA? Linda Stone coined the term CPA in 1998 and differentiated it from multi-tasking. The motivation for multi-tasking is a desire to be more productive and more efficient. On the other hand, CPA is a need to connect and stay connected.
What does this mean for leaders? In his latest book, The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything, Dr. Johansen goes beyond skills and competencies to propose five, new, leadership literacies. These are combinations of disciplines, practices, and worldviews. He reiterates that we need these to thrive in an increasingly VUCA world.
In our brief e-mail exchange, he shared that those 21 or younger in 2017 will have different abilities to stay in continuous partial attention. The younger they are, the stronger the potential!
Creating and Sustaining Positive Energy is one of his five, new leadership literacies. He forecasts that young people who are hopeless and digitally connected will be dangerous. Young people who are hopeful and digitally connected will create an inspiring array of positive disruptions.
I’m yet to learn about the cumulative and long-term impact of CPA on our ability to sustain focus. But my key takeaway from Dr. Johansen’s forecast is that: it’s not all bad news.
Focus and Synaptic Plasticity
As a strengths coach and HR consultant, one of the things I’m starting to learn is that strengths are truly characterized by activities that make us feel strong and energized. Marcus Buckingham has said time and again that strengths are not a personality trait or emotion state. They are a consistent synaptic connection in the brain.
This is further strengthened in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Dr. Daniel Goleman. One of the studies he mentions in the book is the work of Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Davidson defines Focus as “…one of a handful, essential, life abilities that guide us through the turbulence of our inner lives, relationships, and challenges that life bring…”
He says, that during sharp focus, key circuitry in the pre-frontal cortex is in synchronized state with the object of awareness. He calls this state, “phase locking”. In other words, the better you focus, the stronger your neural lock-in! Not different from how we tap and hold a focal point while taking photos on an iPhone (or other smartphones). When the AE-AF banner appears, it locks exposure and focus. We’re now ready to tap the shutter button and take photos or videos.
Minimize Distractions and Increase Focus
Therefore, the message is loud and clear. Sustained focus and attention is a scarce commodity today. Especially in human-to-human interactions. It requires Intention, combined with kind Attention, and Attitude (Dr. Shauna Shapiro – Mindfulness Expert). What practical steps can you consider to minimize these distractions? Here are a few I recommend:
- Turn off wi-fi on your devices in virtual meetings – It is so easy to be in a virtual team meeting on a laptop and simultaneously check one’s phone or tablet for notifications. But it takes away our attention and minimizes focus.
- Sign out of e-mail, chat, and virtual rooms during virtual 1:1s. Whether it’s a coaching engagement, consulting meeting, or a training session, I turn them all off. I don’t need a constant stream of notifications that distract and ‘take me away’ from my client, team member, or topic, which deserves my 100% attention.
- Switch on your Webcam – You’re live! You’re on camera and on stage. People are watching and learning from you. The webcam is like a Pinned Tweet on your Twitter account. It’s free, real estate in a crowded neighborhood. It opens the door. It’s a conversation starter. And it may feel awkward in the beginning but try anyway. In a world that’s increasingly global and virtual, we must take advantage of technology!
How do you sustain focus in a fast-paced world? What does The Internet Minute contain for you? Let me know!
Author’s note: This post has been updated since Sept.14th with illustrations. Courtesy: Dr. Bob Johansen
Anitha Aswath is an HR Consultant and Strengths Coach of Leader Success in the Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area at Cisco. She has the unique privilege of meeting Cisco clients from all over the world to serve, teach, and enable the success of their teams.
THIS IS A PERSONAL BLOG AND VIEWS DON’T REPRESENT CISCO’S STRATEGIES OR OPINIONS.